The CEO and Chair of the Executive Board of SURF talks about innovation, challenges, and collaboration in Dutch higher education.
SURF is the premier education nonprofit association in the Netherlands, seeking to "achieve greater impact on digitization in education and research." The relationship between SURF and EDUCAUSE is a deep one; in fact, Dutch is prominent among the many languages spoken by the 400–500 hundred international participants who attend the EDUCAUSE annual conference every year. In December 2019 SURF selected Jet de Ranitz as the new CEO and chair of the Executive Board of SURF, effective May 1, 2020. She has extensive experience in leadership of education and research, most recently as president of Inholland University of Applied Sciences. The association also concluded some substantial reorganization, combining several of their nonprofit enterprises—SURFmarket, SURFsara, and SURFnet—into one entity. In January 2021, EDUCAUSE president and CEO John O'Brien connected with de Ranitz on a virtual video call to learn more about her vision and the future of SURF.
John O'Brien: Like EDUCAUSE, SURF exists to serve its members. How is SURF unique?
Jet de Ranitz: SURF is unique in that it incorporates a broad variety of information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure and services for research and education, ranging from internet and network services to supercomputing and procurement of hardware and software. We produce and program our own ICT services, as well as negotiate with big tech on behalf of our members. Also, our members range from research universities to vocational education. We cater to the needs of their employees and students on the one hand while trying to influence national and international policy (and access on an international level) on the other hand. It's a broad scope, but that's what makes it interesting as well, obviously.
O'Brien: Are there advantages and disadvantages to this approach?
De Ranitz: Since virtually all higher education institutions in the Netherlands are members, we have a strong position in negotiations with commercial partners. Our members want to safeguard academic freedom, along with the privacy of students and professors, and they place increasing emphasis on sustainability. To ensure this, we must keep a close eye on public value such as security, autonomy, and inclusion in everything we do. When our members stick together, we are able to not only program ICT that incorporates these values "by design" but also explore, with commercial companies, how they can promote the development of their products in this direction. In my experience, commercial companies become more open to this debate. This is being supported by the European Commission, which put pressure on these issues, ratified at the national level.
As for the downside, we are a large and varied group, so finding common priorities is not always easy. And having to keep your eye on "everything to do with ICT" also requires us to be versatile. This is a challenge, I can tell you, in particular with the changes being as rapid as they are in this field.
O'Brien: Such a broad mission and such a variety of member institutions requires compromise at times. Does that slow you down? How do you stay innovative and yet serve all your members?
De Ranitz: Innovation is usually served by forming smaller coalitions: little speedboats as part of the larger fleet, if you will. With a smaller group of willing partners, we can experiment and explore new territory. We have done so for the development of badges for microcredentials in education, for example. When this is successful, we can turn to the challenge of scaling it up for all members to use as a new service. Our members appreciate that they don't always have to be the front-runner: through their membership, they can profit from the results of their colleagues. That way we move forward as a sector: we keep the fleet moving as a whole.
O'Brien: You're navigating some major changes in your structure at the same time that a worldwide pandemic has changed the game. I can't decide if the timing is perfect or simply awful. What do you think?
De Ranitz: It's probably both. Having to devote a lot of time to our internal organization (due to the merger) at the same time that the COVID-19 pandemic assaulted us was a heavy burden. I think we've all had a hard time going through big changes when we were not allowed to meet in person and were afraid of friends and family falling ill or having to homeschool children while working.
But our members were hit even harder: they had to switch to online education literally overnight. The university hospitals are still working under extreme circumstances coping with this crisis. Trying to juggle it all has been a ride. But in the end, it's mainly a blessing that we got this done. The demand for ICT in education and research could not have been higher. Now, we can really get a move on.
O'Brien: What is the most important topic on your agenda in the coming years? Do you have any clarity about what "post-pandemic" will look like?
De Ranitz: I don't think we're going back to what education was like before the pandemic. Yes, we will all be very happy when we resume on-campus classes, in particular for practice-based training. We all crave the social interaction. But many digital ways of working have proven to be successful. While digital work used to be something for the front-runners, it has now been adopted by the majority of professors. In the Netherlands, students have actually performed better during the pandemic: they passed more exams, in spite of increasing worries about social isolation. For researchers, it's nothing new to collaborate digitally for their international projects. This is becoming the standard. The success of finding vaccines in under a year's time is proof of that.
We need to reap the benefits of last year and focus on anchoring the new digital skills that everyone has acquired and expand on them. At the same time, we need to devote much more attention to making education more inclusive and developing our pedagogical skills for a digital environment. Keeping students engaged, in particular when circumstances are difficult for them (for whatever reason), is key and is twice as hard in a digital environment. The use of data, apps, and open educational materials can give a boost to a more individual approach for students. ICT should improve teaching and support—it will never replace the teacher.
SURF has always been the technology partner: we make sure technology is available for use. In coming years, we will devote more of our time to the adoption of technology, as well as how to enhance education and research with it, developing new practices together and helping institutions with the transformation to hybrid education. Safeguarding public values for the benefit of students and professors, as we use more and more technology, is a priority as well.
O'Brien: How do you think EDUCAUSE and SURF could work together even more closely in the years ahead?
De Ranitz: Colleges and universities in the United States have a lot of experience in promoting inclusive education. In the past, for example, I was very happy to learn from efforts in California to give better opportunities to underprivileged students from black communities in particular. Also, remote teaching of students in rural areas is more advanced in the United States and Canada. I would be interested in exchanging experiences in these areas. When it comes to issues such as privacy, autonomy, and sustainability, it's clear we need a combined effort to make an impact. Collaborating with and learning from each other in these fields would be great.
We definitely look forward to joining EDUCAUSE activities, when it's safe to do so again. We can't wait!
Jet de Ranitz is CEO of SURF.
John O'Brien is President and CEO of EDUCAUSE.
© 2021 Jet de Ranitz and John O'Brien. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.